A Short History of the Colombian Conflict

An overview for foreign visitors
A Short History of the Colombian Conflict

For all its excellent travel opportunities, then is no denying that Colombia is a country with a turbulent past. The violent conflict which has blighted the country over the past five decades has undoubtedly left its mark on the culture and outlook of its inhabitants.

Understanding something about the country's history will not only help you gain a valuable insight into the local mindset, it also enables you to appreciate how far the country has come from the depths of its conflict two decades ago. The country's political history is complex, with different actors rising and falling, and alliances forming and breaking, over the years. Here is a guide to understanding all these twists and turns over the past decades:

Origins of the Colombian Conflict

A number of structural factors provide the backdrop for the emergence of armed conflict in Colombia. A history of poverty, inequality, insecurity and a lack of state presence, especially in rural areas, feature highly among the long-term causes of the country’s problems with violence. For most historians, however, it was the events of the mid-20th century that sowed the seeds for later armed disputes.

La Violencia

In the 1930s and 1940s, Colombia’s political system was dominated by two main parties: the Liberals and the Conservatives. These two blocks had starkly opposing ideas about how the country should be governed. Feelings ran particular high over the issue of land, which was highly unevenly distributed among the population in this period.

While Liberals favored a degree of land reform and advance legislative proposals to this end, the Conservative Party believed redistribution of the country’s territory would destroy the economy. The more extreme of the Conservatives even argued that the Liberals’ comparatively modest reform proposals amounted to nothing less than a communist overhaul of the land ownership system.

The dispute between these two sides over this and other issues became increasingly aggressive, creating a highly charged political environment. In this context, the murder of Liberal Party leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in Bogota in 1948 proved to be explosive. The assassination provoked mass rioting across the capital in which approximately half of the city destroyed. This was the first incident of a decade long period of violence, known simply as “La Violencia”.

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In the years which followed an estimated 200,000 people lost their lives, often in a horrifically brutal fashion. Members of both the Conservative and Liberal elite sought to whip up public anger for their own political purposes and both sides provided arms and support to members of the civilian population. These militia groups, formed overwhelmingly of rural peasants, aimed not only to defeat their opponents, but also to erase any trace of their existence. Barbaric methods of punishment, torture and execution were widespread.

After nearly ten years of bloodletting, Conservative and Liberal Party leaders eventually brokered a truce in the late 1950s. Under the new political structure, which came into force in 1958, senior officials from the two parties effectively agreed to rotate power as part of a coalition government known as the National Front. This arrangement was a qualified success in that it put an end to the worst of the violence of the previous decade and ushered in a new period of relative political stability.

This power-sharing pact closed Colombia's political system to new entrants and emerging forces

A less positive outcome of this power-sharing pact was that it closed the political system to new entrants and emerging forces. Colombians in many rural areas – where rates of poverty were particularly elevated – felt especially disenfranchised by the new structure. A number of the peasant militia which had been formed during “La Violencia” thus opted not to surrender their arms to authorities, refusing to accept the legitimacy of the central government. Instead, they asserted their autonomy, forming self-proclaimed ‘independent republics’ in remote parts of the countryside.

Left Wing Insurgency

During the first few years after “La Violencia”, authorities exhibited a degree of reluctant tolerance towards these independent republics. However, as time progressed and the new political regime consolidated, Bogota’s attitude towards the peasant militia groups hardened. By 1962, authorities decided it was time to act and began a new military offensive against the largest of these entities, the ‘republic’ of Marquetalia.

During May and June 1964, military forces bombarded and invaded Marquetalia. Leading the peasant resistance against the attack was Manuel Marulanda Vélez, aka “Tirofijo” or “Sureshot”. Though the army eventually took control of the area Tirofijo and other peasant leaders escaped with their lives, fleeing to remote jungle areas to plan their next move. The military invasion of Marquetalia convinced the group, which was already advocating Marxist political thought, of the need for a radical overhaul of the Colombian political system.

Shortly after, the group settled on armed struggle as a means to achieve political change and adopted the name the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In order to finance its military activities, the group began to carry out its first kidnaps of wealthy landowners and political figures. This tactic was originally intended as a kind of redistributive action; extracting money from the wealthy and transferring it to the rural poor. The FARC was only one of a myriad of left wing insurgent organisations which formed around this time

The FARC was only one of a myriad of left wing insurgent organisations which formed around this time – itself, a reflection of the confrontational and polemical nature of Colombian politics in the early 1960s. In 1964 the National Liberation Army (ELN) was created by a group of rural students who had traveled and studied revolutionary ideology in Cuba on scholarships funded by Fidel Castro.

These two insurgent organisations (both of which remain operational to date) were joined in 1967 by the now defunct Population Liberation Army (EPL): a violent offshoot from Colombia’s Communist Party. A final group, M-19 – which comprised a mixture of mainly urban left-wing activists, students, disaffected FARC militants and trade unionists – was formed in response to widespread allegations of fraud during the 1970 general elections, which proved detrimental to left leaning candidates.

Thus, by the 1970s the Colombian state was already facing a number of armed challenges from both rural and urban areas of the country. With weak government institutions and the proliferation of violent actors, the stage was set for a long-lasting conflict.

The Conflict Intensifies

Though several insurgent groups formed in the 1960s, their activities remained comparatively limited for the first few years of their operation, while they developed their political and operational strategies.

The FARC, the largest of the insurgent organisations, spent its first 15 years or so, mainly on defending its territory and gradually building up its membership and military capacity. It was not until 1978, at the organisation's sixth conference, that its leadership opted to switch to a more proactive and aggressive strategy.

At its 1978 conference, the FARC's leadership opted to switch to a more proactive and aggressive strategy

To finance the military expansion, FARC commanders throughout the country were instructed to resort to whatever means necessary to increase the group's income. This saw the insurgent organisation dramatically scale-up its involvement in the trade in illegal drugs. Extortive kidnaps became regular practice for the organisation; ransoms became larger while the level of wealth required to become a target fell.

Paramilitary Emergence

While guerrilla groups were increasing in strength, the Colombian state appeared increasingly weak and ineffectual. Unable to guarantee security in large parts of the country, President Belisario Betancur (1982 – 1986) adopted a softer approach to the guerrillas than had his predecessors and attempt to negotiate a peace settlement with the various insurgent groups.

In an effort to coax them into giving up the violent struggle, the government offered guerrillas a number of concessions. These included the reduction of state military operations against FARC strongholds and the release of dozens of guerrilla leaders from the country’s prisons.

The reduction of state actions against the rebel groups, just as the FARC and others were becoming more aggressive, provoked a violent backlash from sections of society which felt directly threatened by the insurgents. Self-defeense groups and paramilitary forces began to form in the areas of greatest guerrilla presence at the time, especially in the valley of the Magdalena River.

Paramilitarism was a violent backlash from sections of society which felt directly threatened by the insurgents

These new forces were made up of those who wishing to protect themselves from kidnaps, extortion and other violent acts perpetrated by the increasingly aggressive guerrilla groups. The emerging paramilitaries benefited from the tacit / active support of local military officials, who invariably conscious of the state’s inability to provide security in the surrounding areas. Unofficial ties formed, with military and paramilitary forces sharing intelligence, ammunition and weaponry; they even coordinated a number of military offensives against the guerrillas and those perceived as their supporters.

Diverse Groupings

Some of the paramilitaries were formed by local rural workers in response to direct threats on themselves or their families. One of the earliest groups was formed by Ramon Isaza, then a campesino who the FARC had ordered to be kidnapped after he refused to pay protection money to the organisation. Another was formed by the Castaño brothers, Fidel and Carlos, after their father was kidnapped and killed by guerrillas, despite the family paying two ransoms to secure his release.

Other paramilitaries emerged from sections of the underworld, which had begun to come into conflict with the various guerrilla groups. From the mid-1970s, the attention of Colombia's criminal elements began to become increasingly fixed on the profits available from exporting cocaine from the Andes to the United States. One of the most notorious drug trafficking syndicates was the Medellin Cartel, led by the notorious drugs baron, Pablo Escobar. Given the huge sums being earned by this organisation by the early 1980s, they themselves came to be seen by guerrilla groups as legitimate kidnapping targets and in 1981, the M-19 group decided to kidnap a close relative of one of the senior cartel members.

The response of the cartel was fierce. Escobar ordered the formation of a new paramilitary organisation, known as “Muerte a Secuestradores” (MAS), or Death to Kidnappers. The cartel leader placed at Fidel Castro at the head of the new group which began a vicious campaign to locate and execute alleged members and collaborators of M-19. Within three months, some 200 such individuals were killed. Frustrated with the government's inaction against the guerrillas, a number of serving and former state security officials also began to work with MAS.

Pablo Escobar ordered the formation of a new paramilitary organisation, known as "Death to Kidnappers"

In one fell swoop, the various paramilitaries, drug traffickers and state officials had all been brought together in their fight against the guerrillas. However, with the armed forces taking little action against the insurgents, and with guerrilla incomes expanding rapidly, the FARC and other militias showed no sign of giving up the fight.

The Rise of Pablo Escobar

One of the key figures in the cocaine trade from the late 1970s was Pablo Escobar. Together with several associates, Escobar formed the infamous Medellin Cartel which, at its height, was estimated to be making around USD 60m a day from cocaine exports to the United States. Escobar, who aspired to be accepted by the country's political class, spent large sums on public works for the poor and campaigned for a congressional seat, which he won in the early 1980s. However, his election brought him into the spotlight and eventually encouraged Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla to initiate an investigation into the source of his wealth. After investigators conclusively confirmed Escobar's involvement in illicit activities, the drug boss lost his congressional seat and was permanently ejected from Colombia's political establishment.

Escobar’s Terror Campaign

Seeking revenge for this humiliation, Escobar ordered Minister Lara assassinated. The brazen killing of a serving government minister prompted the first serious state clampdown on the Medellin Cartel. Escobar declared himself to be at war with the state and in the space of less than three months in 1989 his associates staged over 100 bomb attacks on government buildings and public spaces in Colombia. He ordered the assassination of Luis Carlos Galán, a popular and charismatic presidential candidate, and subsequently tried to kill his successor Cesar Gaviria by bombing a public airliner. This terrible attack killed 107 civilians. These and countless other incidents of terrorist violence were all designed to force the state to end extradition to the US for anyone arrested on drugs offences.

Surrender and Death

The government eventually conceded to this demand and the drugs baron handed himself in to authorities in 1991. However, he did so only on the condition that he would be imprisoned in a special facility which he had personally designed, financed and built. “La Catedral” - as the 'prison' was known - was not so much a detention center as a luxury mansion where Escobar could receive countless visitors. The extraordinary privileges Escobar enjoyed allowed him to continue to direct his illegal empire from prison. Once the central government became aware of this, they tried to relocate him in 1992. During the bungled operation, Escobar escaped and once again tried to wage war on the state. This time around, Escobar's power was much diminished, as many allies had left him and his list of enemies had grown. After 18 months in hiding, state officials eventually tracked him to a house in Medellin in late 1993 and killed him during a subsequent raid on his hideout.

The Height of Conflict: Mid-90s to 2002

In the meantime, the FARC and other rebel groups had used the breathing space afforded by the state's war against Escobar to redouble their military and criminal activities. As a result, they expanded both their membership and territorial control dramatically. Their increased power also prompted their opponents to consolidate against them and, by the late 90s, the previously disparate paramilitary forces united under one national organisation, known as the AUC. Violent competition between the AUC and the left-wing insurgents increased, with paramilitary forces in particular perpetrating repeated massacres of civilians deemed to be 'guerrilla collaborators'. The paramilitary violence served to displace the FARC from drug trafficking areas and separate them from one of their main income sources. This led the organisation to turn instead to the practice of mass-kidnapping in the early 2000s, mounting roadblocks on public highways throughout the country in order to detain victims and extort their families.

The Tide Begins to Turn: 2002 - 2010

In this dismal security context, Colombians voted the hard line former governor of the Antioquia region, Alvaro Uribe, to the presidency in 2002. Using substantial military aid provided by the US, President Uribe began a determined counter-offensive against the country’s illegally armed groups, with a particular focus on left wing groups. He also initiated negotiations with the AUC, overseeing the eventual (heavily flawed) demobilization of tens of thousands of paramilitary members. Such initiatives were successful in that large swathes of territory were reclaimed for the state, levels of violence reduced and the FARC's mass-kidnappings ended. This last development was of huge psychological importance to the population, especially in urban areas, who once again felt they could travel outside of cities without fear of being captured. These advances were not without their cost, however. During the Uribe government, there were widespread allegations of serious human rights violations committed by the country’s armed forces and many of Uribe's political allies faced investigation and conviction for their links to brutal paramilitary commanders.

Santos and the Pursuit of Peace

In 2010, Juan Manuel Santos was elected as Colombia’s new president. Santos had served as Defense Minister during much of the Uribe government and had directed some of the most controversial military operations of this era. While he was widely anticipated to continue with the policies of the former president, Santos surprised many by adopting a different approach to the country's political challenges. Though he has continued to apply military pressure to insurgents, his principal priority has been to achieve a negotiated solution to the armed conflict. Despite some hiccups, the current round of peace talks with the FARC are the most hopeful of the past five decades. The two sides have already reached partial agreement on a number of key negotiating points and most observers now expect a final deal will be concluded before the end of 2016. No doubt, there will be plenty of problems in implementing the agreement - not least because of the vocal criticism of Uribe, who is now President Santos' greatest opponent - but the signing of a peace deal would be a hugely positive development for the prospects of permanent peace in Colombia.


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